Even if you use it for nothing else, use OneDrive for this.
In previous articles, I looked at two backup techniques:
- Creating an image backup using Windows 10’s built-in imaging tool1, and
- Setting up File History to back up files that change on a regular basis to an external drive.
This is all good — but we can do better.
Best practices for a robust backup strategy call for keeping a backup copy off-site. OneDrive, included as part of Windows 10, can do that automatically.
We’ll set up OneDrive and then make a couple of changes to other applications to make our use of OneDrive for backing up nearly transparent.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
- You’ll need a Microsoft account to use OneDrive.
- OneDrive is included in Windows 10, and can be downloaded and installed on older versions of Windows.
- Setting up OneDrive creates a OneDrive folder on your PC.
- OneDrive automatically copies files and folders in that OneDrive folder to the cloud and other PCs.
- Setting OneDrive as the default location to save documents makes using it transparent.
- OneDrive includes a Version History feature to recover accidental changes and deletions.
Microsoft account and connectivity
You’ll need a Microsoft account to use OneDrive.
You may already use one to log into your PC. If you’re logging in with an email address — particularly if it’s a @hotmail.com, @outlook.com, @msn.com, or other Microsoft-provided email domain — you already have one.
If not, and you don’t have a Microsoft account at all, I’d recommend visiting outlook.com and signing up for a new account. It’s free.
You will also need to be online for OneDrive to work. It’s best if you’re constantly connected, but it’ll work with an intermittent connection as well. As with all things online, the faster the better.
OneDrive is standard in Windows 10. In fact, it’s downright difficult to remove. (It can also be download and installed in previous versions of Windows from the OneDrive website.)
If OneDrive has not yet been set up, you’ll often get a notification to “finish” setting it up, and the taskbar icon may have a red error indicator.
If you don’t see the icon, you may need to click the “Show hidden icons” carat (^ — not present above) to make the OneDrive icon appear in the notification area.
Click the OneDrive icon to launch the setup process.
Setting up OneDrive
First, you’ll be asked for the email address corresponding to your Microsoft account. Type it in and click Sign in.
Once signed in, you’ll be shown the location of your OneDrive folder, with the option to change that location.
Unless you have a specific reason to change it — such as placing it on a different drive — leaving it at the default location is fine. That location will be “C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive”, where “<login id>” is replaced with your log-in identifier. In the example above, that’s “lnote”. That puts the OneDrive folder alongside other folders you may commonly use:
- C:\Users\<login id>\Documents
- C:\Users\<login id>\Downloads
- C:\Users\<login id>\Pictures
You’ll be presented with a list of folders in your OneDrive account.
Since I already have and use OneDrive, it displays a list of the folders already included there. The contents of all the folders I select will be downloaded and mirrored on my PC. If this is your first use of OneDrive, your folder list may be empty.
Unless you know you have specific requirements otherwise, make sure “Sync all files and folders in OneDrive” is checked. Click on Next.
That’s it! Well, you may be presented with some “Isn’t OneDrive wonderful?” marketing and informational messages, but it’s set up. OneDrive is at work.
What OneDrive does for backing up
After setting it up, you might be wondering why we bothered with all that. What’s in it for us?
At its most basic, OneDrive operates similarly to other cloud storage services: what’s on your hard drive is a mirror — a copy — of what’s in your OneDrive account online, and vice-versa.
Great. What’s that mean?
- Any time you add or update a file or folder within the OneDrive folder on your machine, it is automatically uploaded to OneDrive online.
- Any time a file appears in OneDrive online, it’s automatically downloaded to the OneDrive folder on your machine.
The file is available in both locations, and you can use it in either.
For our purposes today, that’s it. In fact, I’m going to completely ignore the second and focus entirely on the first: whenever you add or change something in the OneDrive folder on your machine, it’s automatically uploaded.
Or to put another way: it’s automatically backed up to the cloud.
Leveraging OneDrive transparently
The easiest way to make sure OneDrive is always backing up your work is to always work in a OneDrive folder.
That means instead of creating your new documents (or Pictures, or Music, or whatever) in your “Documents” folder, create them in your OneDrive folder. Then, every time you hit “Save”, the document is updated on your disk and uploaded to your OneDrive online account.
Put another way, every time you hit “Save”, your document is backed up to the cloud. Your PC could be destroyed, but your document(s) will still be there, online, in your OneDrive account.
The easiest way to create all your new work within OneDrive is to change the default folder your applications use. Unfortunately, that’s not a global setting; it’s something you need to locate and change for each application.
Some applications remember the last folder you used and automatically use that folder again the next time you create or save a document. Others don’t remember at all, and you need to remember to save your document to your OneDrive folder. Others, like Microsoft Word (shown below), have options buried in advanced settings that allow you to change the default location.
The default will almost certainly be “C:\Users\<login id>\Documents”; you want to modify that to be “C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive”. If you’re like me, and like to keep things organized, you might create a folder within your OneDrive folder — perhaps “WordDocs” — and set the default location to “C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive\WordDocs”. Now all the new documents you create will:
- Be created in OneDrive.
- Live in the OneDrive folder on your computer.
- Be automatically uploaded every time you click on “Save” or exit the program.
It may seem like a little hassle to locate the options within the programs you use most often, but it’s something you need to do only once …
… and it’ll pay off every time you need to grab a file from your OneDrive online backup.
As I’ve said, the big selling point of OneDrive (and utilities like it) is that you can install it on multiple machines, and the files you place in your OneDrive folder will be synchronized across all of them.
OneDrive online also includes version history. Right-click on a file in the online interface and you’ll be given an option to review the history of previous edits or versions of the file.
For Microsoft Office files, the files will be shown in their respective online interface, so you can view the contents. Otherwise, you’ll simply be given a list of different dates on which previous versions of the file were saved. Currently, up to 30 days of previous versions will be kept, but naturally that’s subject to change (and whether or not you upgrade to one of OneDrive’s premium plans).
The bottom line, however, is that if you’re using OneDrive as I’ve outlined here, and you make a number of changes, or accidentally delete a file in the OneDrive folder on your hard drive, not to worry: you can still use the OneDrive online interface to retrieve previous copies of the file.
OneDrive is available across different devices, including phones and tablets, as well as different operating systems, including PC and Mac.